HC Deb 24 March 2004 vol 419 cc272-80WH

11 am

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD)

May I thank Mr. Speaker, through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving us the chance to hold this debate? I hope that the Minister is pleased at the prospect of this debate, because I am giving her the chance to make herself even more popular with both disabled people and the Chancellor. I believe that I have a win-win-win set of proposals: winning for the taxpayer, because savings can be made, winning for animal lovers and for the dogs involved, and, most important of all, winning for people with disabilities who can, through the use of an assistance dog in the circumstances that I shall describe, regain their independence and—in some circumstances—even return to work. Put simply, we can, through the sorts of actions in my proposal, make more assistance dogs available for more people.

We are all used to seeing guide dogs helping people who are blind or have severe visual impairments. Guide Dogs for the Blind has done tremendous work over the years. It has received support from previous Governments, from this Government and from Members from all parties in the House. It does a tremendous job and is popular with the public and the people whom they help. Canine partners—dogs—help many more people than just those with severe visual impairments and blind people. They can be used to help people with hearing difficulties and people with epilepsy—they can detect an oncoming fit, sometimes half an hour before it happens. The focus today is on assistance dogs that can help people with physical disabilities and often people in wheelchairs.

The charitable sector has developed these services and trained many dogs over the years. In this area, as in many others, the charitable sector is becoming much more organised than it has been in the past. There is now an umbrella organisation called Assistance Dogs (UK), which represents the five main constituent charities: Guide Dogs for the Blind, Canine Partners, Hearing Dogs for Deaf People, Dogs for the Disabled and Support Dogs. They are all registered charities and they receive no direct funding from the Government. However, I think that we all agree that they do a fabulous job in developing innovative approaches to canine partnerships. The Minister will have seen and will know about how these dogs can transform people's lives, help them expand their life choices, experience a different quality of life, and very often enable them to take up education and work opportunities. They can make a complete difference.

It is appropriate to mention one real life case. The WiltshireGazette & Herald of 24 December 2003 contained an article about a lady who had been suffering from multiple sclerosis and was increasingly dependent on carers. However, with some support from Wiltshire county council with payments for dog food, vet bills, insurance, and so on, she was able to benefit from her black labrador, Naomi, which transformed her life. The sorts of things that Naomi did for her owner included waking her in the morning, bringing her clothes, picking up items that were dropped, opening and closing drawers and doors, taking clothes out of the washing machine and, when they were out and about in the street, pushing the button on pelican crossings. That huge number of tasks brings a smile to everyone's face when they hear about them and makes a difference to the individual concerned.

I hope that the Minister is pleased that I have secured this debate, because I know that she already supports these charities. I have heard from the charities that she has shown a great interest and is keen to help. Both she and her predecessor were helpful in ensuring that the direct payment scheme could be used and that the local care packages could be developed. I should like to say a little bit more about that in a second.

I am sure that the Minister is aware, through her work, that the opportunities provided by canine partners do not just help disabled people; they help their families, too—particularly young and elderly carers—giving them respite and helping them to get on with their lives. This is a compelling case. I could use most of my time describing how wonderful the opportunities are but, rather than doing that, I want to get down to brass tacks. What could the Government do to expand this great sector?

The Government have already been helpful on direct payments. I think that it was the Minister's predecessor who confirmed in writing a year or so ago—perhaps even two—that direct payments could be used for paying food and vet bills. Charities have presented the letter that I received from the then Minister to social service departments to show them that payments could be used for that purpose. The letter was very helpful. I ask the Minister today to reinforce that previous guidance through all the links that she and her officials have with social service departments throughout the country in order to ensure that the concept of allowing direct payments to support assistance dogs is given the full weight of her Department so that more social service departments consider that option. It would also be worth while if assistance dogs were included in the local care packages of people who are not necessarily eligible for direct payments. That would help disabled people, but it would also help their carers and the social service departments to understand the full potential benefits of assistance dogs.

Housing is a difficult issue. People who would like a dog and could benefit from one often find that they live in inappropriate housing. A dog has certain physical needs that tend to require a garden. Many people who are potential beneficiaries do not have a garden and therefore cannot benefit from a dog for obvious reasons. The idea of local authorities being required to have accessible housing registers was debated in respect of disabilities more generally in the Standing Committee on the Housing Bill on 24 February. There was support from both sides. Good practice guidance, which has been published by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and its predecessors, supports the development of registers listing the adaptive homes that are suitable for disabled people and the names of the people who are looking for such properties. The Minister's colleague in the ODPM was very positive in her reply to that Standing Committee debate. She had some concerns that new registers would result in the opposite of what the Government have been doing in respect of choice-based lettings schemes, but I wonder whether such schemes could be adapted to ensure the availability of properties that would be the most appropriate choice for disabled people—in this case, for disabled people who would benefit from the use of a dog.

Current legislation enables dogs that are trained with their human partner to go into most public places, but dogs under training do not have that protection. Someone who is training a dog to be used by someone with a disability is not able to take it into all public premises. I hope that the Minister will undertake to review the legislation and ensure that dogs under training are permitted to enter public places.

I said earlier that there would be huge cost savings for the Government. That is not the rationale for my proposal; instead, it is to give independence back to disabled people. However, because the cost savings would be so significant, it would make sense for the Government to consider more carefully whether this cutting-edge approach would have benefits for councils throughout the country as well as the Exchequer. I suggest that the Government undertake a feasibility study to determine more clearly the relative costs and potential savings.

I understand that the savings could be huge. In effect, a dog would be on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The cost of its food and vet bills would be rather less than the costs of a human carer. An assistance dogs charity prepared a costing for this debate, which I would be happy to give to the Minister. Using extremely modest assumptions, it suggests cost savings of more than £65,000 for the eight-year period of the working life of a dog. If some of those savings were ploughed back into expanding the number of dogs available and improving access to such dogs, particularly for people on low incomes, substantial savings could still be left for social services departments and the Exchequer and the quality of life for many disabled people could be massively improved.

I do not ask the Government to commit huge sums of money, and the Minister is clearly not in a position to do that today. I ask them to give interested parties and me the assurance that they will examine the cost savings potential. That would not require a huge amount of work on the part of her Department or officials, but it might bring home to them the fact that the Government could be far more active in that area.

The Government could help with costs in one initial area. It is in line with many of their policies, particularly the access-to-work programme, and involves defraying the costs of the training courses for the disabled people who are beginning their placement with an assistance dog. Canine Partners, an assistance dog charity that has helped me prepare for the debate, runs its training sessions from a centre in Holton Lee near Poole in Dorset. It rents part of the centre from another charity for eight weeks of the year and, in that period, it provides four two-week training courses with about six candidates on each course. They are very intensive: the human and the dog get to know each other and learn to use the basic 100 commands that each dog is taught, and then the human learns to teach new commands specific to the individual's needs. The course can dramatically change someone's life as the partnership develops.

The cost of the course per partnership is £3,700. That is quite a small price for dramatically changing a life. In many cases, it results in the person being able to access education and work, so it fits in with the Government's thinking on those issues. However, I hope that they will be more generous and not only link the course to access to work but help all disabled people to benefit by subsidising or defraying the cost of the course.

In discussions with the assistance dog charities, I had a slightly more esoteric idea to involve minor offenders in open and other prisons with the training of the dogs. There is a lot of evidence of the therapeutic benefits for offenders of working with animals, and I do not see why one could not have a virtuous circle of benefits for those involved and savings for the taxpayer if there was a way in which a scheme could be piloted at an open prison. The offenders could enjoy the friendship of a dog, learn positive things about a relationship with a dog and learn that, through their actions, they have helped a disabled person. That could reduce the training costs for charities and, if we cut reoffending, the costs to society more widely.

I have outlined a modest package of measures. If the Minister were to take them and run with them, they could make a significant difference to the availability of assistance dogs. I could have taken a different approach and argued that the Government should step in; that charities have shown the way forward and now the Government should run a national scheme and spend millions of pounds setting up their own dog training centres and provide assistance dogs to any disabled person who wanted one. It might be ideal, but it would be unwise to take that sort of service into the public sector. The state can get a bigger bang for its buck by working with and supporting charities and finding ways to develop the work that they are already doing.

There is huge potential. One charity has estimated that there may be as many 850,000 disabled people for whom assistance dogs would be beneficial. We know that there are millions of disabled people, but just under a million could benefit. Not all of them would want to benefit, and perhaps some people would baulk at the idea of 850,000 black or golden labradors going up and down the streets.

I think, however, that we could do an awful lot better than the 6,800 such dogs that are out there in the country at the moment. I am sure that there is massive untapped potential; this is a win-win situation, and the Government should grasp the opportunity with both hands. The Minister has a great record. I hope that she can expand on that and on her growing reputation.

11.15 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle)

First and foremost, I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) on securing the debate. One of the benefits of this Chamber is that it gives us the opportunity to raise such issues, which although not always at the top of the political agenda, are none the less very important to many of our constituents. As he thoughtfully set out, it is possible to raise people's awareness of such important issues, and I congratulate him on choosing to do that.

I fully recognise the important role that assistance dogs play in enabling many disabled people, especially those with visual and hearing impairments, and increasingly those with more complex care needs, to lead independent lives. I am pleased to endorse everything that the hon. Gentleman said about the value that those animals and the charities that train them have in improving the lives of disabled people.

It is important that we debate such issues because I do not think that there is a general awareness among the public, who do not deal with such things on a daily basis, about what assistance dogs can do. Many people still think of guide dogs for the blind. They do not realise that dogs can help hearing-impaired people and that others, like Naomi, can assist people who live with MS. A dog can deal well with things that those people may find hard to cope with.

When people read our debate inHansard, many will be amazed to learn that dogs can already help to pay for shopping at the supermarket. That is one of the innovative new services on which the charity sector and Canine Partners in particular have taken the lead. I am pleased to pay tribute to their work and to say publicly that the dogs' work is valuable.

The hon. Gentleman referred to direct payments. There is no doubt that the advent and increasing use of direct payments has been a big stimulus in assisting disabled people to take full control of their own care needs and how they are provided. Such payments have also stimulated local authority social services departments to think more innovatively about how to fulfil their obligation to provide care services to disabled people in their areas.

I congratulate local authorities such as Wiltshire, which helped with Naomi, and Surrey on realising that the role of dogs can go beyond simply helping those with a visual or hearing impairment. Such authorities appreciate that dogs can provide the care that in the past we thought could only be provided by humans. I congratulate them on their innovative approach.

Direct payments were introduced to give people control over how their care is delivered. Our intention is that they should be flexible and designed around the individual. Disabled people themselves suggested the idea of direct payments, which enable imaginative and novel solutions that are suited to the individual. Such payments mean that practical common sense can triumph over bureaucracy, form filling and processing, and the idea that we must continue to deal with things in the same old way.

The example of assistance dogs shows how innovative direct payments can be. They will not always be appropriate, as the hon. Gentleman acknowledged. However, when the council is satisfied that a person's needs can be met by using a direct payment in that way, there is no reason why it should not enable that payment to go ahead. The important consideration is the outcome for the disabled person. It is outcomes rather than processes that local councils should be focusing on, as the best and most innovative of them are.

The Government are committed to the increased use of direct payments for all disabled people, which is why we have changed the law to give councils a duty to make a direct payment to everyone who is eligible and wants one. In the past, there was a permissive power, which was not taken up with as much enthusiasm and speed as we might have hoped. We have now changed the law to impose a duty on local authorities. That means that that approach to direct payments should be discussed at every assessment and review of a disabled person's circumstances. We will also include direct payments in how we assess performance. Hopefully that will get across to local councils—I am sure that it will—the importance with which the Government view the success of direct payments.

The Government have also put money into the support services that we know are essential in helping people to get on to and to stay on direct payments. The direct payments development fund is putting £9 million over three years into voluntary and community sector organisations, which can then work with the councils to promote and increase the take-up of direct payments. There is an opportunity to raise awareness about the potential role of assistance dogs in appropriate cases. For example, the Royal National Institute of the Blind is working in Rotherham to increase the take-up among people who are blind, partially sighted or have low vision by offering a quality of life check. At that point, it can raise awareness about possible solutions.

The provision of assistance dogs is not just confined to the direct payment system. As the hon. Gentleman made clear, some local councils and social services departments are taking an even more enlightened approach to the care packages that they provide and to finance that is outside direct payments. They have recognised the extent to which assistance dogs can be an integral part of care packages for some individuals.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks about my role in the Government, but I have to tell him that my responsibilities in the Department for Work and Pensions do not extend to dealing with social services departments. They are led directly by the Department of Health. That said, we are all believers in joined-up government and my ministerial colleagues in that Department and I look closely at such issues together. There is no reason why I cannot talk to those who have direct responsibility for social services, stress to them the points that have been made and draw his ideas to their attention.

I have, of course, some responses to make to the hon. Gentleman, but he will understand that I also have to approach my colleagues in other Departments. Perhaps I can deal with some of his points in correspondence. He asked me to reinforce the direction that the Government have taken to ensure that full weight is given to the concept of allowing direct payments to support an assistance dog. We have done that. He cited a letter from an ex-Minister at, I think, the Department of Health. There is no doubt that the Department has already issued guidance for councils and that we are committed to making it clear to them that we are looking for a creative and flexible approach to direct payments, built around the individual's needs. It is outcomes for the individual disabled person that are important, not a quota relating to how, and on what, money should be spent.

The hon. Gentleman asked about housing schemes supporting those with assistance dogs. He referred to the essential needs of dogs, such as a private area or a small piece of garden—somewhere where the dog can exercise and have a bit of space. As he said, that falls within the remit of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. He said that there had been some discussions on legislation, led by that Department. He will know that there is no requirement to provide private space, but registered social landlords are encouraged to provide suitable private or common space whenever possible. Under the housing quality indicator system, a registered social landlord receives better recognition for providing a larger open space. So there is encouragement for those who provide housing to think about needs that are not first on the list, including private garden space or communal space, which would be suitable for dog-owners.

I shall pass on the hon. Gentleman's comments on registers of adapted homes, choice-based lettings and the implication of making changes, and I am sure that Ministers will give them due consideration.

The hon. Gentleman suggested looking at legislation to see whether it is possible to enable dogs in training to enter public premises. The policy of the Health and Safety Executive, which is within my Department, is that rather than implementing blanket bans, health and safety controls should be sensibly applied. The goal is not to try to eliminate all risks in public buildings—that would not be sensible—but to have a system under which risk is properly managed. We aim to have inclusive two-way communication with stakeholders, and he is aware of specific problems arising from the attempt to take dogs in training into public places. I would be very happy for the hon. Gentleman to write to me with some examples. I shall ask the Health and Safety Executive about its approach and ask whether something can be done to ensure that current rules are not applied unnecessarily rigorously.

I am sure that what the hon. Gentleman said about cost savings would be of great interest to the local authorities, which often bear the cost. No doubt, they will take notice because, if they have additional resources that are not being spent on the sort of support that someone with an assistance dog might otherwise need, they could not only provide a more efficient local service but have some spare money to do something for someone else in their area. I am sure that when local authorities start to think about the wider benefit of assistance dogs, they will recognise the potential.

On defraying the cost of training courses for disabled people as they learn to work with their assistance dog, the hon. Gentleman will know that the Department for Work and Pensions arranges vocational training—he referred to the access to work scheme, which is a little different—for long-term unemployed adults, many of whom have disabilities and are visually impaired, and for whom suitable vocational training provision is not available. On our courses, we ensure that any specialist support that is necessary for someone to make progress, including that relating to assistance dogs, is met. That does not deal with his concern about the cost of learning to work with the dog. I shall have to return to that, which I undertake to do.

The hon. Gentleman made an interesting suggestion about prisoners. He will be aware that, along with all the other matters for which I am not responsible, I am not responsible for prisoners. However, I shall take his idea to my colleague in the Home Office and return to him with an answer. It is not something on which I want to stick my neck out at the moment. The hon. Gentleman had a number of interesting ideas and I am pleased to see his enthusiasm, which I can well understand, having met many of the charities that provide assistance dogs. The great value of his comments, which extends beyond simply the issues raised and his ideas, is the opportunity to raise awareness among us all about the potential of assistance dogs. We need to make it clear to the public that their use goes beyond guide dogs for the blind and that they can provide much help and support for disabled people. It is clear that disabled people value their help widely.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.